Completing Air Force Officer's Training School was the hardest thing I've ever done. Harder than FBI anti-terrorist training, harder than SWAT training, harder than Combat Skills training. OTS was only 12 weeks long, and yet, for the first three weeks, every Saturday morning I called home to my wife and told her I was going to march into the Commandant's office on Monday morning and tell him I wanted to wash out and go back to my previous enlisted status...that I no longer wanted to become an officer.
You see, I went to Officer's Training School (OTS) at the very time the Air Force was implementing a sea change in how they recruited. Previously, the Air Force had been taking about 80% of their recruits from fresh college graduates, and 20% from enlisted folks who had gone on to get a degree and go for commissioning. In the previous year, prior to my attending, the Air Force had boosted to 50% those who came from the enlisted ranks.
Well, and this gets a bit convoluted, OTS began developing attitude problems with this mix of young kids and slightly weathered enlisted folks. OTS works much like the Air Force Academy; those who had been in school longer assumed senior positions, regardless of age or Air Force experience. Well, the old enlisted dogs in previous classes were a bit put out by being bossed around by "three week wonders" who hadn't served a day in the "real Air Force". This developed into some serious morale problems so that, by the time I arrived, some pretty heavy flack was being thrown at the prior enlisted grunts....the Air Force wished to bring the enlisted grunts down a peg or two in order to make the system work. Perhaps the OTS commanders went a bit too far with their approach, they certainly did in my own mind.
So, when I reported in, in uniform, we were met by a delegation of these "three week wonders", 22 year old kids who took great delight in manning a reception table laden with razor blades and smirks. The first thing they did was to approach me, cut off my stripes, then proclaim I was "nothing" and had much to learn. It got worse the next day as they called a special meeting for prior enlisted officer candidates. Called us all together and preached to us, saying we know nothing because, being an officer in the air force is so totally different than as an enlisted man that we would have to "re-learn" everything we were taught. They also said that we would have to give up any of our enlisted friends because officers just do not fraternize with enlisted swine. Of course all of that was bullshit but it did prompt my first Saturday morning call to my wife that I was throwing in the towel. She urged me to give it another week..and I did...then called for the next two Saturdays with the same whine..and receiving the same advice.
I got through those first three weeks of classes and field exercises by going for long jogs every day after the duty day. Those five mile runs did help me to relieve some of the stress. And, in the third week, we were fitted for our officer's uniform and Mess Dress tux and those butter bars on my shoulders began to look damn fine.
Still, I was utterly frustrated that we students could never complete a full day's agenda assigned to us...we were already sleep deprived as we worked like hell from 5AM to Midnight every duty day and still could not do all that we were told we had to do. Some, including me, did far better than others, but no one finished all of their assignments.
Relief finally came about the sixth week. Though I am a hard head, I finally realized no one expects you to finish them all! The key to success, in not getting washed out, was to PRIORITIZE those assignments and get the most important ones done! After that it became a little easier...still very difficult, but easier to handle. For example, we would have field exercises where we were to come up with solutions for impossible command leadership situations. We were ultimately graded on our thought processes, and not for reaching solutions, because there were none! Looking back I have to say that this training was invaluable later in my career when faced with really tough decisions.
In the 7th week on we became the "upperclassmen" and school officials began to loosen the reins a bit. We were allowed Friday night beer busts in our own officers club and everyone was required to participate in some form of a stage show. I began writing comedy skits where I played the central character; a hayseed from from the country who writes home to his ma and pa about his experiences at OTS. I was quite a hit! I would wander around the stage reading my weekly letter to be sent home and mention all the funny and strange things that had happened in school that week. These skits really eased the tension and I'm sure the loud guffaws and cries of laughter owed as much to the need to let off steam as it was for the quality of my humor.
Well, about 80% of us made it through OTS. We fought like hell to help those who were failing but saved only a few. On the night of our graduation mess (a formal banquet) I received a couple of awards; one for my little Friday night skits, and one for coming in second in miles jogged during that 12 weeks. I did more than 500 miles around that mile track...just to survive!
Although I am not big on pomp and pageantry, I have to admit our graduation parade and ceremony was magnificent. John Phillip Souza never sounded so good as the Air Force Band accompanied our crisp last march in the ranks.
I had my silver dollar ready for the first enlisted who saluted me, proffered the coin, returned the salute and drove off of Medina Complex, San Antonio, Texas, ready to meet the many leadership challenges that I would face over the next ten years.